In modern-day England, a troupe of performers led by Doctor Parnussus – a purported immortal with mystical powers – put on an old-fashioned travelling show where a walk through a fake mirror leads to a fantasy world. It turns out that the world, or ‘imaginarium’, is the good doctor’s mind while he is in a trance. In it, participants have to make a choice between darkness and light, as Doctor Parnussus struggles to win a bet he made with the devil. At stake is the soul of his daughter Valentina. The situation is touch-and-go when a mysterious stranger, Tony, shows up to possibly tip the scales in one side’s favour.
Anyone who’s ever seen a Terry Gilliam movie will recognise his fingerprints all over this. Just like Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the fantasy world/alternate reality put forth here by Gilliam is original and mind-blowing.
While not everyone may have the name of this movie at the tip of their tongues, some would have the vague notion that this was Heath Ledger’s last movie – in fact he died before production wrapped. His friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell were brought in to fill in for some of his scenes as Tony, a development justified by a clever reworking of the script.
Does this work? Yes.
Gilliam’s film is quirky, enigmatic and fun. There is real escapism to be found in his films, which often take you away to a faraway, perhaps far-fetched, fantasy world on the coat-tails of a flawed, tragic hero figure.
Here, Ledger may be the deserved centre of attention, but legendary Christopher Plummer is remarkable as Doctor Parnussus, while ably supported by Verne Troyer – aka Mini-Me – Andrew Garfield, and the captivating model-turned-actress Lily Cole, who plays Valentina. There is also much to be savoured in singer-actor Tom Waits’ smarmy turn as Mr Nick, a personification of the devil.
The movie manages to keep you interested for the most part, especially when Ledger or Cole is on the screen, but it seems to paint itself into a corner towards the end. The story sags and loses momentum just as Colin Farrell arrives on the scene, for the penultimate plot development.
Some of the special-effects scenes also tend to linger a little too long.
Although it has the type of special-effects that are commonplace in today’s cinema, much of what you see in the course of the film will strike you as truly original. The film also signals the emergence of Cole and Garfield, who may next be seen in Never Let Me Go (one of the films to look out for in 2010), opposite Keira Knightley.
Many fans will be drawn by Ledger and Depp, arguably the biggest stars on set, and if they’re not Gilliam fans yet, this film could yet convert them. It is at times outrageous, inspired, cheeky and hilarious, and frequently unlike anything you’ve seen in a long while.